LIMP DOCUMENTARY WON'T HELP AMERICAN FANS UNDERSTAND PULP'S POPULARITY IN THE UK; If The Band is Really Done, Do We Care?
by Don Stradley
The overwelming impression throughout Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, is one of dull contemplation. Watching it is like watching a person of only modest intelligence stroking his chin and pausing for dramatic effect. And it's not the sort of navel gazing we associate with certain artsy rock bands; it's the kind of empty introspection we associate with aging actresses who decide to write self-help books. We're in a golden era for rock documentaries, but it's rare to see one where there is so little visceral impact, with a story so void of drama. The movie is about the final concert of Pulp, a U.K. band that never made a dent in America, but became quite a phenomenon in England, largely because of the nerdy swagger and smarty-pants lyrics of lead singer Jarvis Cocker. Like David Byrne or Moby, the key to Cocker's success could be that he's an anti-rock star; he seems more like a dorky math teacher doing the funky chicken at a wedding.
Given all the adoration that Cocker's Brit fans heap on him - and we meet several of these loyal fans during the course of the movie - it's hard to justify the strangely gyrating geek onstage with the undying fandom. We don't hear tons of music in the movie, though the band's big hit 'Common People' gets a pretty good workout, including a version by a group of older ladies who harmonize pretty well. 'Common People' is a good song, crazily infectious. The others we hear are a mixed bag. They drone on, while Cocker writhes around on the stage. He puts his hand over his face like an old silent screen star feigning panic, or does a sort of porno star burlesque. His bandmates say he's become more of an exhibitionist in recent years. Maybe it's good that the band is done, because I wouldn't want to see him continue to evolve.
The music doesn't get a fair shake, though. One song sounds like it might be good, but it's sung by an old, bearded troubadour, not Cocker. Why doesn't director Florian Habicht let the band perform their songs? We hear choral groups, and buskers, and old women, and librarians, but not Pulp. This is the only time I've seen a rock documentary and can't tell you if the musicians are any good or not. They seem likeable enough, but there isn't much delight in their playing. If this homecoming show in Sheffield is truly their final gig, they don't seem too bothered by the idea.
The movie isn't much to look at. Habicht presents the Sheffield show like a typical rock concert. There's some smoke, and lights, and Cocker prances about in the shadows. The concert footage is broken up by long stretches of Sheffield scenery, and from what we can tell there's not much going on in the town where Pulp was born. We see Cocker riding a bicycle, and visiting an old fish shop where he worked as a kid. We also meet some Sheffield locals. They seem nice enough, but they also seem to think Sheffield is the only place where people go shopping or drink beer. They all know about Jarvis Cocker, and they're proud of him, even if some are under the wrong impression that he's related to Joe Cocker. There's an androgynous kid named Bomar who likes living in Sheffield because he once lived in London and was mugged; in Sheffield, Bomar says, the town is so small that you probably know the guy mugging you, and you can tease him about it later. What a great slogan that would be for the tourist trade: "Come to Sheffield, where the muggers are your pals!"
Cocker is reputed to be a charismatic speaker, but aside from a quick mumble about how he's afraid of dying, and how he worries that his brain is shutting down, he says nothing memorable here. Judging from this movie, he's not the most interesting rock star around. Hell, he's not even the most interesting person in Pulp. That distinction goes to Candida Doyle, the keyboardist who has struggled with arthritis since her teen years, as well as panic attacks. She hadn't wanted to come out of retirement to rejoin Pulp on this farewell tour, but she did. Such a trooper deserves a movie.